The Steam Deck was a smash hit when it started shipping in 2022, providing one of the best ways to play PC games in a handheld console form factor. However, the Steam Deck has a problem that is getting worse: games that are verified to work don’t actually work.
Valve’s Steam Deck console runs a custom Linux-based operating system, called “SteamOS.” You can install Windows, but it’s a worse experience and not fully supported. Most PC games still don’t support Linux, which is where Proton comes into the picture. Proton is a customized version of the Wine compatibility layer with a focus on games, allowing many modern Windows games to run unmodified on Linux platforms like SteamOS. The independent ProtonDB database reports over 16,000 games were recommended (at one point or another) by Proton users as fully compatible.
The Verified Problem
You can run just about any Windows game in the Proton compatibility layer, but whether or not the game will be playable is a whole different story. That’s why Valve has been going through the Steam games catalog and testing games — not just to fix bugs in Proton, but also to give people buying a Steam Deck a general idea of what will work.
The official Steam Deck website explains the “four categories of Deck compatibility,” which range from untested or not compatible to “Verified.” If a game is marked as Steam Deck Verified, it “works great on Steam Deck, right out of the box,” according to Valve. The criteria for a Verified game includes full controller support, no compatibility warnings, a controller-compatible launcher (if there is any launcher), and default settings that run on the Steam Deck.
Valve’s compatibility categories are central to the Steam Deck experience — only games that Valve deems as “great on Deck” are shown on the first page of the console’s built-in Steam store, and game listings have a tab displaying Steam Deck compatibility. However, there’s a growing problem of some games marked as Verified having problems on the Steam Deck, when that’s the entire point of the rating.
God of War, an adventure RPG published by Sony, is marked as Steam Deck Verified. However, it’s easy to find complaints about the game not working on the Steam Deck. Reddit user JayDecay said in December, “I noticed in high action moments, there was a lot of stuttering and that bugged me, but again, I figured I could work with it. The real problem was that I was playing the game for exactly 49 minutes and it locked up, having to restart my Steam Deck.” Another comment from July reported, “Every time I play this game, it works perfectly but after about an hour, the game suddenly stutters and then I have to do a hard Power Off and reboot the game.” More recently, GamingOnLinux said on Twitter, “God of War should not be Steam Deck Verified when it will hard crash the Steam Deck. […] it’s a known problem, and easy to find plenty of others talking about it. The RAM use just creeps up until it dies.”
Horizon Zero Dawn, another Sony-made game that is also marked as Steam Deck Verified, has also been a poor experience for some players. Reddit user admiralchaos reported hot temperatures and thermal throttling earlier this month, which was met with comments like “Horizon zero dawn runs horribly on the steam deck in general” and “That’s exactly what I experienced when playing hzd. So I refunded it and got something else.” Another person said in another thread, “it will turn your deck in an Easy Bake Oven no matter what in-game settings you tinker with.” There are many other Verified games with similar complaints, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Death Stranding.
Not a Console
Modern games on their own can be buggy at the best of times, and on top of that, most popular games on the Steam Deck are running under a compatibility layer with its own set of problems. Many game developers aren’t actively testing their games on the Steam Deck, either. In most cases, Valve and the community are doing the heavy lifting to support games, instead of game developers.
The Steam Deck is a PC that runs PC games, just in a more unique form factor, so it’s understandable that you need to tweak settings for most games. However, Valve is advertising a console-like experience with Verified games that is increasingly not living up to expectations.
So, what’s going wrong? Valve didn’t respond to our request for comment, so for now, we can only speculate. The most likely scenario is that Valve is testing many games for Steam Deck compatibility, but doesn’t test them again with subsequent updates. If a game introduces a new type of DRM or anti-cheat that isn’t compatible with the Proton layer, or calls DirectX functions that Proton doesn’t (yet) support, the game could start breaking while still having a Verified label.
As an example, God of War was released on Steam on January 14, 2022, and Valve performed Steam Deck testing on February 3, giving it the Verified label. That was around the same time as the Steam Deck started shipping to the first wave of pre-orders, so there aren’t a lot of reports about how it ran at the time, positive or not — IGN published an 18-minute long demo with no problems, though. SteamDB reports that Valve tested version 1.0.1 of God of War, and before the end of February, the game was already up to v1.0.8. The earliest reports of issues on the Steam Deck go back to April, and many more are from later in 2022. Again, that could be due to updates breaking the game, or just a bias in the data from more people owning a Steam Deck by that point. The most recent patch to God of War was in May 2022, but the Proton compatibility layer has received many more updates, which could also affect how the game runs.
Many people have no problems with God of War or other games on their Steam Deck, but many others do have issues. The entire point of the Verified program was to give buyers a base expectation of what games will definitely work on the Steam Deck, but right now, it’s not delivering that — leaving the Steam Deck as more of a project that needs tweaking from players than a ready-to-go handheld console.
The Steam Deck and its Proton compatibility layer are fantastic products that make PC games more accessible and portable than previously possible, but Valve really needs to fix its Verified system. Players hoping for a functional and supported portable gaming experience are better off with a Nintendo Switch.